Staying in Touch, Talking and Being Inspired

Another sad farewell on Tuesday to a really lovely chap who I worked with for 15 months right back at the start of my career and always intended to stay in touch with. I only saw Fred once in the intervening 27 years to my utter shame and once again I am only reminded of the passing of time when getting reacquainted with old friends around the coffin of someone we were all very fond of.

This funeral came just a day after hearing the sad news of the death of my Dad’s sister, my Aunty Julie, so there will be a family get together in the same tragic funeral format within the next week or so. Thinking about it now, the last time I saw many of these family members was 20 years ago at my Dad’s funeral. Why are we all so busily self obsessed that we neglect our extended network of family and friends while feeling ‘close’ to them through social media?

There’s a limit to how many people I can invite to the monthly Sunday Dinner Club but I will take away a renewed determination that on the back of sharing news with everyone of our impending house move I will make efforts to meet and chat to people more often. RIP Fred and thanks for all the practical help and good times down in the lab and for your laughter.

The Major prompt for me to write this blog post after Fred’s funeral was to find a way to talk about the positive impact made on my life by a very special friend and former boss who is sadly seriously ill at the moment. His frustration at his current condition was clear to see as well as his disappointment that Fred’s career achievements had not been expressed in any way at his funeral. I also detected his concern that when people reflect on their time at RAE Bedford they generally focus on the fun times and windups and a lot of the significant technology achievements that were worked at so hard, will hardly get a mention. I can understand this concern, particularly when faced with such reminders of ones own fragility and short time on earth. I wanted to write some things down as a personal thank-you to Major S that will hopefully demonstrate that there are plenty folks around who recognise the value created during time at RAE Bedford.

Between my 2nd and 3rd year at university I really needed a break and to find my motivation for engineering as a career so I took a year of work experience and was lucky enough to join the Flight Systems team at RAE Bedford working for Major S. (There is a whole parallel world of stories that leads me to refer to him as Major but I will leave that for another time except to say he wasn’t actually a Major) From our first meeting on interviews day he had a refreshingly open approach and clearly cared about people, opening the interview with words to the effect of “you look knackered mate, want a coffee?” which after a series of quite formal interviews elsewhere on the site was extremely welcome.

So I spent the next 15 months working on all kinds of cool stuff relating to the numerous support systems for the flight simulators and related computing and electronics systems. PC’s were a long way from sitting on every desk in those days and we were starting to explore just what they might be able to bring to the defence environment long before people were using tools like Windows. I worked with all kinds of kit from being at the bench with a soldering iron, using early Unix based computing systems to do circuit design and analysis, pcb design, helping maintain the main servers on the site, taking flights in research aircraft and in the flight simulator. Major S made sure that all of us trainees gained massively from our time at RAE and sampled some of the excitement that an engineering career can offer and also provided me with the basis of a final year project to take back to Lancaster with me.

However I think the biggest lesson I learned from Major S that has shaped my professional career massively relates more to management than it does to any sort of technology. I witnessed at an early age what I still consider to be best practice in the management of technical personnel and engineering professionals and I have tried to emulate that in all my management roles since. To lead with humour and humility and by trusting people, you create a space for them to succeed for themselves, its like the opposite of the micro-managing majority I have been surrounded by in most organisations. When things go wrong there is no need for criticism, just teamwork and trust, to dig the way out while knowing that ‘the boss’ will be there to shield the team from the worst of any corporate flak. Such leaders know their subject matter well enough that they don’t need to remind everyone all the time as some sort of self reinforcing comfort blanket and will allow the team to ‘discover’ things for themselves rather than tell them how to do things. Its a powerful skill to guide people without spoon feeding and a real pleasure then to watch them grow and become more capable.

So, thank-you Major S, you made more difference to me than you know and I am delighted to have you as a friend all these years later.


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